Interview with Professor Donald Broom

Study Buddhism met with Professor Donald Broom at the University of Cambridge to discuss animal intelligence, non-human languages, and why we love some animals and eat others.

I’m walking through the tranquil halls of the University of Cambridge, on my way to meet with Professor Donald Broom, a luminary in the realm of animal consciousness and welfare. As the world’s first professor of animal welfare science, Professor Broom has a career spanning decades, and his pioneering work in the field of animal behavior and cognition has reshaped our understanding of the minds that dwell in creatures, great and small, beyond our own species.

At the heart of Professor Broom's scholarly pursuits lies a fundamental question: what are our ethical obligations to the animals with whom we share this planet? His research has shown time and again that a vast array of animals have sophisticated intelligence beyond our current understanding, which urges us to rethink our relationship with the natural world.

Throughout his career, Professor Broom has authored a multitude of seminal works that have left an indelible mark on the field of animal welfare, especially in the UK and the European Union. His groundbreaking publications, such as "Sentience and Animal Welfare," "Cognitive Ability and Sentience: Which Aquatic Animals Should Be Protected?" and "The Evolution of Morality and Religion" have garnered international acclaim for their profound insights into the emotional lives and cognitive capacities of animals.

In our exclusive interview with Professor Donald Broom, we embark on an exploration of his research and insights. Our conversation traverses the astonishing intelligence of animals and the ethical considerations surrounding the use of zoos and circuses in modern society. Amidst these discussions, a profound question emerges: why do we extend love and protection to some species while turning a blind eye to the suffering of others? Read on to find out why!

Study Buddhism: It is fair to say that while many of us appreciate the intelligence of primates, human exceptionalism reigns supreme. We generally view most animals as simply stupid, despite the fact that science has shown that parrots, crows, and even common farm animals possess sophisticated cognitive abilities. Do we need to re-evaluate the meaning of “bird brain” and overturn this idea of human exceptionalism?

Professor Donald Broom: I think people do often have the idea that humans are extremely different from all other animals, and that other animals are stupid in comparison with humans. However, the more research we do, the more we find that that's not correct at all. We have an enormous overlap in our functioning, our genetic makeup with other species, our brain function. We're actually very, very similar to other species.

It used to be thought that it was only other primates, monkeys and apes who were clever. Now, it's clear that probably the most sophisticated learning that has been demonstrated is in parrots and crows. So, "bird brain" means slightly cleverer than a lot of monkeys! Also, common farm animals, cows, sheep and pigs, which are social animals and therefore need to have high quality brains, also have very high levels of cognitive ability, as do dogs, fish and octopus.

There are lots of animals that are complex in their learning ability as demonstrated by learning studies. One comparative study that was done by Ron Kilgour in New Zealand some years ago was to see if animals could learn to run a maze. And what he found was that all the animals he tested could learn to go through the maze. He had mazes of different sizes for different sizes of animals. But the domestic animals, the cows and sheep and pigs, did extremely well, slightly better than dogs, cats and horses. That was a surprising result. 

There are studies where animals have to remember things and act on them later. We now know that all animals are organizing their lives in a way in which they're planning for the future. If a pig is watching while you hide something, if you allow it to go there the following day, it still remembers where you put it. If the object is food and there's another pig there, it may not go and get it initially because it could be robbed by the other pig. In other words, it's predicting what might happen in the future, and it's acting accordingly.

Are there, then, any abilities that are exclusive to humans? What abilities do animals have that might surprise us? 

There's almost nothing where we can say that humans can do something that other kinds of animals can't, because to some degree, they can do everything. It's hard to find an ability that humans have and other animals don't have. So, the differences are far less than we had previously thought. Communication, at a very sophisticated level, is something that occurs in lots of species, not just in humans.

I think we're a bit better at a number of things than the other animals that have been studied, but there's also a tendency to study humans and other species in a way that favors humans by the way we do it. People have said, "Well, obviously no other animals have language." But, actually, lots of other animals have language in the sense of communicating sophisticated ideas, retaining them, and presenting them later in a social situation. As far as I'm concerned, that's language.

There are many situations where animals will be able to observe an interaction, let's say between two other individuals, and then to use that information in order to predict what is likely to happen in another interaction. So, one individual is able to obtain a resource from another, by competition, and then they see several other competitions, and then they can deduce what's going to happen in a final competition.

To be able to observe a situation and act accordingly requires sophisticated awareness, and a sense of connection to others. What kind of awareness do animals have?

There are various levels of awareness that animals have. Awareness is an individual thing, there can't be awareness of a group. If you look at a shoal of fish, you would always talk about the awareness of the individual. However, there is also communication between the individuals, but that communication is not the same as awareness. It's using the awareness of individuals.

The University of Cambridge, where Professor Donald Broom has carried out his research over the last four decades.

Then there's a question that you could consider as religious: is there anything more than an individual? I would say to some degree there is a spirit linking individuals. This spirit is the fundamental aspect of religions and concepts of God. Because of the way societies are organized, and because of moral behavior, there is something that links individuals. But it's not awareness, it's something outside the minimal biological functioning. That kind of link across individuals is something that is important in socially living animals as well.

You mentioned just before that lots of other animals have what we could call languages and can communicate sophisticated ideas. What are some of the methods that animals use to communicate that are different to the types of human communication we know?

I think all social animals have complex communication, which may not all be visual or auditory as it is for us humans. There are various ways of communicating. It could be through smells as well. When you look at a dog, the dog is investigating what other dogs have done in the past, and what other animals have done in the past, and it's getting a lot of information. This is communication of a sophisticated nature, which we don't know about, and we can't do very well. For example, we are not very good at olfactory communication. There are things that we can't do that other animals can do.

If you live in the water, then the pressure around you varies in subtle ways, and so fish are getting information from other fish via pressure senses. So, we need to look at the whole of their sensory ability in order to consider whether they have language. I would say that all the social animals have some degree of language. We're certainly including birds and mammals and fish in that, and probably cephalopods like squid, which live in social groups. They seem to have some level of it.

A cuttlefish can communicate by changing its colour. A cuttlefish is a cephalopod mollusc, and there are examples of them showing emotional changes that are different on the two sides of the body because they've got different individuals whom they're communicating with in different ways on the two sides of their body. We can't do that, and they can. They can change colour and communicate emotional change or their emotional state to two different individuals in different ways at the same time.

Quite a few animals are indeed more sophisticated and complex than we are in terms of communication. The social insects are remarkable in the efficiency of their communication, in that a lot of it is by odor. So, they are giving quite sophisticated information by odor. And social insects also can use visual cues. We know that bees can indicate to other bees where a food source is, and how good a food source it is, so that the other bees can use that information and go out there. That's been known for 50 years. It's actually a more sophisticated situation than we originally thought. So, social insects are able to communicate using odor, using vision and using sounds.

Social insects can also learn routes, how to go from one place to another in an efficient way. Having learned a route, they can cut across corners because they've worked out the route in their heads. So, they have quite a sophisticated ability in terms of moving around their environment and communicating to others. It's probably less complex than what vertebrate animals can do, some vertebrates are a bit better at it. 

In your book The Evolution of Morality and Religion, you argue that complex animal societies are most successful if members minimize harm to one another and if collaboration occurs, with a moral structure emerging. Could you give us examples of this moral structure and collaboration between animals?

There are cases of animals collaborating with others in getting food. There are examples of birds that hunt for food, like pelicans, who have to dip their beaks in the water at the same time in order to maximize the chances of getting food because fish and other small animals will swim away from them. So, by collaborating they do better than they would do if they were feeding individually.

There are also examples of individuals warning others when there's danger, and of reciprocating that at a later date, and not just within their own species. For instance, you have mixed species groups such as mixed species flocks of birds where the birds are warning the others when there's a problem, and in turn they get the warning from others. And so those are collaborations, but they are occasions where it's possible to cheat as well.

It's possible to say there's danger when there isn't danger. It's been shown in quite a few species that where an individual does do something that is actually cheating, that causes them a problem socially. Sometimes they're thrown out of the social group, sometimes they're physically attacked for it. And that's basically what religions are teaching: that if you do something that is anti-social, some harm can come to you, which may be immediate, or it may come later on.

We are just one of the social animals that shows this moral behavior. It is moral behavior to avoid harming others, to help others when you can, and to point out cheating when there is cheating. Those are moral activities, and they exist in all the main social species of animals. The whole idea of morality is something that has a biological basis, and it is something that has to be there in order for societies to be stable.

Apart from collaboration for the common good that you talked about, are there other behaviors that demonstrate kindness and goodwill in animals? 

First of all, there are lots and lots of examples of parental care in animals. We can learn from what other animals are doing, in that they are behaving towards their offspring in a way that is appropriate for the ability of the offspring, and in a way that will maximize their survival chances. The young animal wouldn't survive if there wasn't any parental care, and if you live in a group and you don't look out for others, then they won't look out for you. 

Another most obvious thing is avoiding harming others. If you are a cow and you have sharp pointed horns, and live in a group with 20 others, then how often do you stick the horn into another individual accidentally?  And the answer is: never! They don't do it, they avoid it completely. They know what they can do, they know what's dangerous, and they are making sure that they don't harm others.

If you watch a video of an elephant moving through its environment, very often there are smaller animals, young elephants or birds, perhaps cattle egrets that walk around amongst the elephants, and the elephant is very careful where it puts its foot. It is not intending to squash anything, it is trying very hard not to harm other individuals.

And we do that as well. It certainly comes during the development of individuals. You have to learn how to do that, you have to learn how to avoid harming others, and you start doing that at a very early stage, as there is a greater risk in the very young than in the older individuals. 

Are emotional expressions universal across species, or do we often misinterpret signals of happiness and threat? How much can we truly decipher, even in our own kind, when it comes to reading the minds of others, human or animal?

Expressions of other animals are sometimes the same across species. For example, when I am in pain, when somebody sticks a needle in my arm, I might make a grimace response. That is shown by a wide range of other kinds of animals. We have demonstrated that sheep do it, goats do it, horses do it, mice do it. It’s an expression that goes across species.

There are other expressions that are different in different species. If you look at a chimpanzee and it looks as though it's smiling, it may actually be threatening you. So, you need to know what the signal means for which species. We don't always get that right. Sometimes, what looks like a smile is not a smile. But there are similar responses in positive situations. There are behaviors that are shown in positive situations, in the same sort of time that we would be laughing.

It's never possible to say exactly what another individual is thinking, even a human, you don't know! You may get better at this as life goes on, but you can be deceived sometimes by individuals. It's not easy in humans, and it's not easy in other species. 

Over 40 countries have banned the use of animals in circuses. What are the main harms to animals in circuses? 

I think circuses using animals are a bad thing, and they should not be allowed in any country. The first reason is that the animals are normally kept in very confined conditions, because the circus is moving around for a lot of the time. Investigations have shown that they're keeping animals in bad conditions even when they're not moving around.

The second reason is the way they train the animals. Some training actually could be very interesting and exciting for the animals. It's not necessarily wrong to be training animals, but there is also training that is extremely harsh, with violence being used on the animal, with severe deprivation being used. In general, the training that occurs in circuses is not acceptable as far as I'm concerned, and the housing of the animals is not acceptable either. I think no country should allow animals to be in circuses that are moving around the place.

That's different from zoos, I think. In zoos, you can provide for the needs sometimes.

In circuses you normally can't do it at all. The animals that have the major problems in circuses are animals which are fundamentally wild animals, and not adapted to captivity. If you have horses, for example, it's possible to train horses and keep them in good conditions, and for the public to see the horses and for there to be nothing wrong with the horses. But you shouldn't have animals that are fundamentally wild animals kept in circuses.

Professor Donald Broom at the University of Cambridge.

You just mentioned zoos and how they differ from circuses, but there are still many people who are very critical of zoos. What place do and should zoos have in our societies?

People, especially those who live in cities, don't have much contact with animals in the wild, and that's the majority of the people in the world. For them to see animals in a zoo can be a positive experience and it makes them more interested in other species, not just their own. But there are a lot of people who don't like the idea of animals in zoos whose welfare is very poor. Most people don't want to go to a zoo and see an animal that is showing extremely abnormal behavior like stereotypies, that is, repeated movements over and over again. Nobody really wants to see that, especially if they understand that it's an indicator of very poor welfare in that animal. 

I think zoos do have an educational value, but it ought to be educating people by showing them animals that are well-adapted and happy, rather than animals that are suffering.

We shouldn't keep animals in zoos, unless we can keep them in such a way that their needs are met very well. That means quite a lot of animals should not be kept in zoos. Some of the animals that we keep as domestic animals do well in zoos. And there are some animals that eat plants and some animals that are predators that do well in zoos, and others that don't.

Most bears don't do well in zoos. You also can't really have a conventional zoo with whales and dolphins with good welfare, as you've got to give them a very extensive area. Elephants also don't do well in zoos, and shouldn't be kept in zoos, partly because of the way they're trained, using extremely harsh methods throughout the world. Some small predatory animals have great difficulty adapting to zoos, and some primates have a lot of difficulty.

So, we need to know which individual species can adapt well. Basically, you need to provide for the needs of that kind of animal, and that means usually they need a lot more space than most zoos traditionally provide. Small cages are not suitable for most animals, but of course the zoo wants to show the animals to people, so they don't want them to be hiding in the far distance. 

What is the connection between climate change and meat production?

Global warming is occurring, in particular, because of changes in the gases that are going into the atmosphere. The biggest greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, and methane. Human transport system, energy usage for heating houses and air-conditioning of houses, and animals producing greenhouse gases are a factor.

The main one is still carbon dioxide, because a lot is being produced in the course of transporting food around and producing food for animals. But also, the animals themselves, if they are ruminants, are producing methane, and methane is a greenhouse gas. That's having a minor but significant effect. Ruminant animals that are producing the methane are eating something that humans can't eat like grass and other leaves. This is what we need in the future. We don't want to have animals thatare eating the things that we can eat, like grain. It's a waste for grain to be fed to animals when people could eat the grain directly. 

I've recently done a study looking at water usage and found that the biggest usage of water in producing beef meat is in producing grain to feed the animals. So, if the animals are fed grain, a lot of water is needed to produce the grain. 

The best systems to have are the silvopastoral systems, where there's a combination of pasture plants, shrubs with their edible leaves, and trees that give shade and may have edible leaves as well. Those are much more efficient systems. So, we want the ruminants because they are particularly good at utilising grass and other leaf material, but then there's a trade-off with their production of methane. There are many efforts to try and reduce the methane output.

Overall, we do need to move to efficient systems. Many of the systems used at the moment are not very efficient, and we need to reduce the total amount of animal material that is consumed by humans. We all need to eat less animal material. And we should eat animals that are eating things that we can't eat, rather than animals that are competing directly with us for food.

Since animals have been exploited throughout most of history by humans, do you think that our future holds a possible shift towards more ethical treatment of animals, driven by our growing understanding of their sophistication?

We are already looking back at how we have treated animals, thinking what an awful thing we were doing. That will be even more accentuated in the future because the more we learn about animal functioning, the more we discover how sophisticated a lot of the animals we use are. Therefore, I do think that we will feel ashamed of the fact that we treated individuals as badly as we have. In the same way that we treated other humans badly, we will be thinking in the same way about other species. 

But I don't think we will stop using or exploiting other animals, but that exploitation will be more rational, more based on scientific evidence, and kinder. Kinder in the sense that we will be thinking about the welfare of every animal that we interact with, and not doing things that are extremely harmful to them, taking into account the sophistication of their brain function and so on.

I think that cell culture of meat (cultivated meat) is going to be an important factor in the future, and it is going to be a substitute for quite a lot of the meat that is eaten now. Cells from one animal, muscle cells generally, can multiply and be used so they are providing food for vast numbers of people. You still need to have resources for that, and there's a question of what resources are coming in, and whether it is a sustainable system. There's still some research needed on that.

There are still some areas where development is needed to make it work properly, but this is actually happening. These products are sufficiently similar to meat, so that people can eat it and say, "As far as I'm concerned, that tastes like meat." I think it is something that will be solved and we will see cultivated meat as a major part of our society within twenty or thirty years. 

While hunting in some societies is done out of necessity, in many places it is done just for fun. While attitudes in places like the UK are turning more and more against hunting for fun, is hunting ever justified?

There are circumstances, where the numbers of animals are just so large that if you don't do anything, they're going to die of starvation. There could be a situation where you have a population where there could be a thousand animals in this area getting food, but you've got two thousand, and that means that a thousand are going to die of starvation, which is a very bad death. Therefore, there are times when populations could be managed by reducing the numbers of animals. The ideal thing would be to be able to catch them and take them somewhere else, but that's not always possible. 

We can also have the situation where there's a predator that is killing lots of other animals, and there might then be an argument for eliminating that animal. But there are also lots of occasions when people want to go out and enjoy chasing animals and killing them, rather than really being concerned about managing populations. The problem is that many of the people hunting as a sport are incompetent, and the animal may die over a period of three weeks with a lot of suffering. If you're very good at shooting and you only shoot when you have a very clear shot that is going to kill the animal straight away, that's humane. 

Species like the wolf are very rare. Even though populations are going up, they are rare. It should be possible for people to live with the wolves, rather than trying to kill them. In Norway there are farmers who get a compensation scheme run by the government if they can demonstrate that wolves have killed their animals, so they don't kill the wolves, but the farmers get reimbursed. 

Looking again at social attitudes, how has the field of animal welfare science influenced consumer choices and legal regulations?

The major research activity of the last thirty years in our animal welfare research group here in Cambridge, and indeed in several others in different places around the world, has been to scientifically evaluate the welfare of animals in relation to housing conditions, various forms of treatment, transport, or what happens before slaughter. We now have a very good understanding of measures of the welfare of animals.

We know the difference between one method and another method and know that some methods are extremely bad for animals. We've been using methods for keeping animals that are absolutely terrible, which don't meet their needs, and which result in the animals becoming seriously harmed. 

Professor Donald Broom at the University of Cambridge.

Using scientific methods as tools for assessing welfare changes the opinion of people subsequently. In the European Union, we now have half a dozen areas where we've got systems that used to be legal, and which are now not legal. We don't allow calves to be kept in little boxes any more, or pregnant sows to be tied up all the time or kept in small stalls, or hens to be kept in small battery cages, or indeed for some transport methods. So, we have seen some major changes, and they are all based on scientific evidence.

The way that the change occurs is that a scientific report by independent scientists is required by the European Commission or the European Parliament, and then action is taken. But if people couldn't care less about it, then it wouldn't happen. It's because the public have a very high level of concern about sustainability in general, and the welfare of animals in particular.

The change has been very wide-ranging in human society because there's more information available, and consumers now know what is happening in farming systems. We've seen an economic change, where consumers are driving a lot more of the decisions about what happens on farms or in factories. Consumers have demanded change, they've demanded it of politicians, politicians have got the information and formulated laws. And codes of practice, such as supermarket codes of practice, have been very important in changing how animals are kept.

And to finish up, why is it that people love certain types of species, like dogs and cats, while having no problems killing others such as spiders and mice? 

I find it peculiar that people strongly dislike some animals and like others! You can say to somebody, "What do you think about the welfare of animals?" And they say, "Oh, I think it's very important." And then you say, "What do you think about the welfare of rats?" And they say, "Well, that's different."

But it shouldn't be different because a rat is a fully functional animal, with a sophisticated brain and all the senses we have, and even better in some ways. So, to think of a rat as something that is completely unwanted, and yet to like a dog, is illogical. I think the reason is that these are the animals that compete with us and that are successful. In general, we don't like animals that are successful. Rats are very successful, mice are successful, house flies are successful.

And, also, we don't like some animals because they don't look much like us. So, people don't like spiders because they don't look like us, even if they're completely harmless. In fact, even if they're beneficial to us! Spiders in our houses are beneficial in some ways, but there are people who would kill them if they found them in their house. I think that's a terrible thing to do!

Professor Donald Broom, thank you very much for your time and insight into the world of animal behavior and consciousness!